During the Enlightenment, the Marquis de Condorcet defined a public intellectual as someone devoted to “the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them.” A number of years later, on 13 January 1898 to be precise, the writer Emile Zola showed the world — and in particular the French government — what public intellectualism could do. He penned his famous “J’accuse” letter to the President of France, concerning the abysmal behavior of the French authorities in the infamous Dreyfus affair.
Intellectualism, of course, has its detractors, particularly in the United States. Richard Hofstadter’s classic “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life”  traces several strands of the phenomenon all throughout American history, and we can very much see it today in the form of religious-based opposition to the teaching of evolution in public schools, or in the open disdain for politicians who dare name a favorite philosopher that is not Jesus.
At the City University of New York, where I work, I often teach a basic course in Critical Reasoning that uses a handy little booklet entitled, A Short Course in Intellectual Self Defense, by University of Québec-Montreal professor of Education Fundamentals Normand Baillargeon . I highly recommend it, just as I wholeheartedly agree that teaching critical thinking really ought to be part of our concept of “educational fundamentals” — despite the fact that it is seen as optional even at the college level, let alone earlier.
The title of Baillargeon’s book is a play on a quote by the most famous (and controversial) public intellectual of the late 20th and early 21st century: Noam Chomsky. In his essay on Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies , Chomsky wrote that “Citizens of the democratic societies should undertake a course of intellectual self defense to protect themselves from manipulation and control, and to lay the basis for meaningful democracy.” No kidding. Just turn on Fox News, MSNBC, or even CNN and you will see just how intense and damaging the political propaganda is in the US (I know it is no less so in the other country I am directly familiar with, Italy — and I doubt the situation is much different elsewhere, give or take).
People concerned with developing a thriving society have always been worried about the specter of totalitarianism, let’s call it the “1984” scenario. And to be sure, there is much of that still going on in the world, with billions of people living under non democratic (or democratic only in name) regimes, from China to Russia to much of the Middle East.
But a more subtle, arguably more effective, way of controlling people is rather akin to the scenario presented by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World. In that particular dystopia it is psychological (and biological) manipulation that plays the crucial role — and it is much more powerful than overt coercion. Or, if you prefer, arch back to the Roman empire, where its military might abroad was coupled with the famous panem et circenses approach to handling the civilian population at home: give them enough food and entertainment and they won’t have the stomach for a revolution. If that sounds as an even rough approximation of many modern societies, then we agree that we have a serious problem.
That problem, to put it plainly, is that many of our fellow citizens have not taken any intellectual course in self-defense (literally or more broadly speaking), and that they are bombarded by the best political and — let’s not forget it — corporate propaganda money (a lot of money) can buy.
This has a cascade of effects, from the very personal to the societal. At the personal level, many go about their lives with hardly a clue about why they are doing what they are doing. Socrates’ dictum that an unexamined life is not worth living was surely an exaggeration, but it definitely pays from time to time to pause and reflect on what we want from our existence on this planet and why. The ancient called it the pursuit of eudaimonia, the good and moral life. But in order to reflect and make informed decisions we need thinking tools, and there is a dearth of them both inside and outside of our educational system.
At the societal level, this means that we elect politicians because they look like the sort of fellows one would want to have a beer with, rather than because they are honest and brimming with good ideas about how to navigate the perils of the modern world in ways that maximize fairness and well being.
For all of this, I am not so naive as to propose that more education — or even more courses in critical thinking — is the panacea needed to cure the ills of humanity. After all, David Hume famously said that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them” , by which he meant that human beings aren’t just the rational animal (as Aristotle suggested), but also the passionate one. It follows that one needs to take care of emotions just as much, if not more, as one addresses reason.
Indeed, modern research in cognitive science has borne out Hume’s warning. Antonio Damasio  has argued in his Descartes’ Error that a functional human being cannot be modeled on the emotionless Spock, unless we wish for a polity of sociopaths. And of course more recent writings by the likes of Daniel Kahneman  and Jonathan Haidt  have clinched the case that we are so fraught with cognitive biases and so prone to rationalization that it is a miracle anything gets done around the world.
And yet, stuff does get done. Humanity has invented philosophy, and then science, and both have thrived precisely because we can and do use reason to understand the world and improve our lot. I find it somewhat amusing (well, frustrating, really) that every new paper coming out of the social or cognitive sciences showing just how limited and biased the human mind is becomes an argument for the irrelevance of rational thinking. As if those discoveries were made in any other way but by deploying the best reasoning abilities we have in order to overcome whatever biases even the researchers involved in those very studies surely suffer from.
To draw on a pertinent analogy: we have incontrovertible evidence that people in general tend to be bad at estimating probabilities, a phenomenon on which the multi-billion dollar casino industry is built. But very few people (other than casino owners, perhaps) would argue that therefore it is useless to teach about the gambler’s fallacy and other pertinent concepts. On the contrary: teaching the rudiments of probability theory is the best way we know of at least partially immunizing fellow human beings from wasting their fortunes at gambling establishments.
The same goes with critical reasoning and open intellectual discourse. They are not a silver bullet, but I guarantee you that once my students are made aware of the standard logical fallacies  they see them everywhere (because they are everywhere!), and they are better off for it.
Which brings me to the current project, of which this essay is the beginning and informal “manifesto.” Scientia is a Latin word that means knowledge (and understanding) in the broadest possible terms. It has wider implications than the English term “science,” as it includes natural and social sciences, philosophy, logic, and mathematics, to say the least. It reflects the idea that knowledge draws from multiple sources, some empirical (science), some conceptual (philosophy, math and logic), and it cannot be reduced to or constrained by just one of these sources. Salons, of course, were the social engines of the Age of Reason, and a suitable metaphor for public intellectualism in the 21st century, where the gathering places are more likely to be digital but where discussions can be just as vigorous as those that took place in the rooms made available by Madeleine de Scudéry or the marquise de Rambouillet in 17th century salons.
While I have been thinking for years about a venture like Scientia Salon, and have indeed slowly ratcheted up my involvement in public discourse, first as a scientist and more recently as a philosopher, the final kick in the butt was given to me by my City University of New York (Brooklyn College) colleague Corey Robin. I have never (yet) met Corey, but not long ago I happened across his book, The Reactionary Mind , which I found immensely more insightful than much of what has been written of late about why conservatives think the way they do.
More recently, though, I read his short essay in Al Jazeera America, entitled “The responsibility of adjunct intellectuals”  and it neatly crystallized a lot of my own unease. Corey points out that academics have always loved to write for other academics using impenetrable jargon (his example of choice is Immanuel Kant), while other thinkers have forever complained about it. He quotes Thomas Hobbes, for instance, as saying that the academic writing of his time was “nothing else … but insignificant trains of strange and barbarous words.”
And yet, observes Robin, we live in an unprecedented era where more and more academics engage openly and vigorously with the public. This, of course, has been made possible by the technologies of the information age, and especially by social networking platforms like blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and the like. While the average academic article is read by tens or hundreds of people, and it is the rare academic book that reaches 2000 copies, blogs such as my Rationally Speaking (the predecessor to Scientia Salon) is hit by tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands of readers per week, connecting to it from the world over.
Sounds like good news for public intellectualism, no? Well, not exactly, for the simple reason that the tenured academic (such as myself, and Robin) is in decline. While extinction is not an immediate threat, the trend has been as obvious as ominous: in 1971, American universities featured slightly less than 80% full time faculty, complemented by slightly more than 20% adjuncts. In 2009 the two percentages essentially coincided, around 50% per part . It’s not good. Not for adjuncts, not for universities, and not for society at large.
This is not the place to enter into a defense of the tenure system (which, like any social institution, has its pros and cons). But an essential idea behind its inception — which dates back only to the beginning of the 20th century, and was not widely in place until after World War II — is to safeguard faculty from undue administrative and political pressures, giving them relatively free rein as scholars and, you guessed it, public intellectuals. By shifting the balance increasingly toward precariously employed (exploited, really) adjuncts, especially public universities and the States that fund them are effectively undercutting the potential for a new generation of academics interested in engaging in public discourse.
I am not suggesting that the rise of the adjuncts was a premeditated plot by Big Brother to curb the vibrancy of intellectual life — it’s pretty clear that the situation is simply the result of economic decisions coupled with an exceedingly myopic concept of what universities are for. Nor am I claiming that tenured professors are necessarily particularly interested in (or good at) talking to non-peers about what they do. But the fact remains, as Robin so aptly puts it, that “the vast majority of potential public intellectuals do not belong to the academic one percent. They are not forsaking the snappy op-ed for the arcane article. They are not navigating the shoals of publish or perish. They’re grading.”
And this is why I decided to start Scientia Salon and to ask a few colleagues and other interested people to join me. I’m not grading that much compared to the adjuncts working in my Department, and I decided that my time is much better spent working on that “snappy op-ed” (or on essays like this one), which is likely to reach tens of thousands and contribute to the wider debates in our society, rather than on yet another “arcane article” for which I will be lauded by the four or five hyper-specialized colleagues who bothered to read it.
Francis Bacon, arguably the first philosopher of science, famously wrote Ipsa Scientia Potestas Est (which, you may have noticed, is the tag line of Scientia Salon): knowledge is power. While he meant it especially in the sense of harvesting the power of understanding how nature works in order to manipulate her and make human life better, I intend it even more broadly: knowledge and understanding — scientia — of what goes on in the world gives everyone more power over their lives, more ability to influence events, and ultimately more meaning to their existence. This publication aims at making a small contribution in that direction.
Which finally brings me to our manifesto, such as it is.
1) Scientia Salon is a forum for academic and non-academic thinkers who do not shy from the label “public intellectual.”
2) We think intellectualism — in the broader sense of a publicly shared life of the mind — is crucial to the wellbeing of our society.
3) We acknowledge — as is clear from research in the cognitive sciences — that human beings navigate the world by deploying a complex mixture of reason and emotion, and that they often engage in rationalization more than rationality.
4) Indeed, we think with David Hume that this is a crucial part of human nature, since emotions are necessary in order to actually care about anything in the first place.
5) But we also think that open and reasoned discourse is fundamental for the pursuit of a eudaimonic life on the part of the individual, as well as for the development of a just and democratic society.
6) Scientia, understood as the broadest range of scientific and humanistic disciplines that positively contribute to human understanding, is an essential tool for pursuing that eudaimonic life and achieving that just society.
7) In order to make an impact, we think that writers concerned with these matters ought to aim at a wide audience, avoid unnecessary jargon, and write clearly and engagingly, even humorously when appropriate.
8) We therefore welcome authors and readers who are willing to contribute honestly and substantively to an open dialogue on all matters of the intellect, especially those of general interest to fellow human beings.
Happy writing, reading and commenting, everyone.
Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).
 Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, by Richard Hofstadter, 1966.
 A Short Course in Intellectual Self Defense, by Normand Baillargeon, 2011.
 Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies, by Noam Chomsky, 1999.
 For a good introduction to the context of that quote, and Hume’s moral philosophy in general, see this entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
 Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, by Antonio Damasio, 1994.
 Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kanheman, 2001.
 The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt, 2012.
 See the exceedingly well done and fun “Thou Shall Not Commit Logical Fallacies” site, and while you are at it, download their handy poster.
 The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, by Corey Robin, 2011.
 The responsibility of adjunct intellectuals, by Corey Robin, Al Jazeera America.
 For an in-depth analysis of the “adjuncts phenomenon,” with handy data provided, see “The work of the university” by Stephen Perez and Andrew Litt.
76 thoughts on “Scientia Salon: a manifesto for 21st century intellectualism”
labnut, thanks for your thoughtful comments. You make a strong argument and I am inclined to agree, up to a point. (And with Dennett, of course.). You write “the best available method is the clash of ideas exemplified by the adversarial system” and this is where we may differ somewhat (probably due to different cultural influences).
When a subject turns political it is important to tread carefully, not least as an educator. I teach my course together with a colleague (and a very good friend). Even though our outlooks are usually very similar, we do not completely agree on a number of potentially controversial issues. In the classroom, we consciously play two different characters, in order to keep things balanced. In this particular case, my “job” is to question the adversarial system and point to problems and alternatives. My colleague (who is an evolutionary biologist),on the other hand, waves “your” flag, as it were.
For instance, I might point to areas where public debates (such as they are), news media and peer review seem to yield less than adequate and satisfying outcomes. I may also talk about the French rationalist movement as a precursor and parallell to American political and intellectual development. And I may problematize the idea of an “independent arbiter”. My colleague, in contrast, has no problem pointing to the dangers of restricting open competition.
We also teach our students argument analysis and systematic deliberation. We make a point of showing that there is almost always a subjective element to decision making, and in this, we enlist the help of, among others, a professor of practical philosophy.
My personal feeling is that, while it is extremely dangerous and counter-productive to restrict openness, it is equally important to strive for objective means of weighing alternatives and of appointing arbiters (!), as well as making sure that every citizen has truly equal opportunities to participate and evaluate public debate. This is a long-term challenge, but i can be done, which the Swedish model illustrates. Unfortunately, it is always much easier to be destructive than constructive: Much of what was achieved in Sweden in the 19th and 20th century (over a period of about 100 years, not counting the Enlightenment and subsequent developments until about 1850) has been laid to waste in the last three or four decades: Over the span of two generations, public awareness and aspirations have plummeted, in no small measure due to deliberate efforts by a small and financially powerful minority to “Americanize” Swedish society.
A few quotes of my own (posted in my classroom), perhaps illustrating a slightly different focus than you suggest, labnut:
“If we are to confront these ideas, it seems to me, we must begin from Plato’s famous distinction between philosophy, whose goal is truth, and rhetoric, whose goal is persuasion. In a media-dominated democracy truth counts for very little, while persuasion is everything.” (Scruton)
“Citizens of the democratic societies should undertake a course of intellectual self defense to protect themselves from manipulation and control, and to lay the basis for meaningful democracy.” (Chomsky)
“Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains on their appetites” (Burke)
“The function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade…. Skilled arguers are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views.” (Mercier & Sperber)
“The confidence that people have in their beliefs is not a measure of of the quality of evidence, […] it is a judgment of the coherence of the story that the mind has managed to construct.” (Kahneman)
“If we want to have an educated citizenship in a modern technological society, we need to teach them three things: reading, writing, and statistical thinking.” (H. G. Wells)
“People are people / so why should it be / you and I should get along / so awfully” (Depeche Mode)
“Data, data, data! I cannot make bricks without clay!” (Sherlock Holmes)
“Science is what we have learned about how not to fool ourselves about the way the world is.” (Feynman)
“The fact that it is always rationally permissible to ask for further justification for any claim does not mean that it is reasonable to ask for it for every claim.” (Cohen)
“Economics is all about how people make choices. Sociology is all about why they don’t have any choices to make.” (Duesenberry)
“What a fool believes / he sees / No wise man has the power / to reason away / What seems to be / is always better than nothing” (Doobie Brothers)
“Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.” (Martin Luther King, Jr.)
“If you open your mind too much, your brain will fall out.” (Sagan)
Btw, labnut, your opening paragraph (“All of life is and always has been…”) and subsequent reasoning brings to mind (mine, at least) the naturalistic fallacy: making an “ought” out of an “is” (or “was”, for that matter). This is, of course, a classic in political philosophy (economics, evolutionary psychology). I am truly not out to criticize you (ad hominem). But I am curious: What do you think, on a second reading of your own words, about this?
Here are some consequences that follow from our brains being products of Darwinian evolution:
* That we would expect our intuitions to be reliable on things that have direct survival consequences (e.g. jumping off a tall cliff), but not on things that don’t (e.g. existence of a creator god).
* That even in the best of cases our intuitions will be imperfect, since they will have been rigged together to do a job by a process with no foresight or goal. Therefore claims based on intuition need corroboration.
* That if a false belief was actively beneficial to our survival/procreation then we’d be prone to those false beliefs (e.g. over-active pattern recognition; over-estimating our social ability/standing).
* That our moral senses have nothing at all to do with any “absolute” morality, but are simply rigged together to facilitate social interaction. Thus morality is about human feeling/opinion and philosophy should abandon any search for anything beyond that.
That’s some examples. As I said, our brains are biological, and nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. Nearly all of our understanding of ourselves needs to be based on that.
In this project and similar internet discussions, the focus always seems to be on science and philosophy. “Humanities” in general is thrown in but the focus seem to be philosophy and the “soft sciences” of sociology, anthropology, psychology. I assume this is because these things are close to hard science, and so more obviously “knowledge,” but I would argue that literature and the arts in general are very useful and indeed important in helping us understand the experience of being human. This knowledge of our experience of life, (objectively measurable or not) is crucial for our political understanding and decision making. It’s a subtle kind of knowledge, sophisticated, difficult to pin down – but that is why it needs to be discussed. The humanities need to be brought to the general public (and the general public needs to inform the intellectuals perhaps as much as the other way round) at least as much as the sciences, hard and soft. I guess I’m saying that I hope this project will involve literature and the like.
“brings to mind (mine, at least) the naturalistic fallacy: making an “ought” out of an “is””
Gosh, you are opening a whole new can of worms by dragging in the is/ought argument. 🙂
My argument is essentially of the form:
given this set of circumstances the following course of action is advisable.
For example, the M1 is usually congested between the hours of 8 and 10 so it is advisable to take the alternative route via xyz during these hours.
There is no moral entailment so it does not violate the is/ought rule. It is an appeal to practical considerations.
I could have phrased that statement as
given this set of circumstances you ought to follow that course of action,
but then we should carefully examine whether what we really mean by ‘ought’ is an appeal to practical considerations or moral advice.
“ I am truly not out to criticize you ”
No problem, more often than not I deserve the criticism.
I agree completely.
> How does it make sense, or pass the test of rationality, but beautiful equations to represent facts about the universe that can’t possibly be known as fact when the equations are created. Am I the only one to find this profoundly weird? Do I have to sell my car – a Prius – and quit my job to be on the right side of the issue? I would argue that literature and the arts in general are very useful and indeed important in helping us understand the experience of being human. <
I agree, and I wrote that much in a long article on “consilience” published a couple of years ago in the online magazine Aeon. At Scientia Salon we’ll limit ourselves to philosophy, logic, math and the sciences because those have historically comprised “scientia,” and because those are both my interests and areas where I feel I have something to say.
“Unfortunately, it is always much easier to be destructive than constructive”
I think this is the heart of your criticism of the adversarial system and you are arguing for a more deliberative approach.
I think you will find we are mostly in agreement. I will start by noting that the change from settling disputes with the sword to settling then through the adversarial system, like those of the law courts or parliaments, is essentially a moral choice. I make this point because adopting the adversarial system necessarily entailed the adoption of a moral framework which regulated the working of the system. For example, courts of law have elaborate rules of procedure that regulate their operation. Every dispute is conducted within an agreed or implied framework that is essentially moral in nature. Where this fails or becomes destructive it is because there has been a moral failure. What I am saying is that there is a necessary moral dimension required for the success of the adversary system. Absent this the adversarial system will be destructive, but then so will every other system.
Academics in the humanities have generally dropped the ball with respect to their roles as public intellectuals. The ones I’m familiar with actually seem anti-science, and would rather revel in what they perceive to be the beauties of their imaginary worlds. This is not to say that the scientific community is flawless, because scientists are often tone deaf, like engineers who want to fix things that aren’t broken or think that they can fix something that is unfixable. What we seem to end up with these day is public intellectuals who are economists starting from an unquestioned political point of view and then deploying economic pseudoscience to assert their veracity.
I think E.O. Wilson will go down as one of the great thinkers of this era, though, in “Concilience” at least, he is more than a little tone deaf. I don’t think many philosophers should be invited to the party, though that could be a bridge between science and the humanities.
Coel: regarding your list below . . . I’m sure that all of these observations–perhaps not phrased precisely the same way–were made prior to the conceptualization of natural selection (Swift, for instance, would seem a likely person to have observed a few of these things). This doesn’t make using evolutionary reasoning bad exactly, but I think proponents of this sort of thinking tend to vastly overestimate its value as a source for innovative answers to questions smart, rational, observant people have been thinking hard about for millennia. My usual point of reference here is Panksepp’s complaints that so much theorizing has been done (and accepted) about brain structure and function by people who have very little or no grounding in the work that’s been done to directly observe and document these things. Having an explanatory model as to origins just doesn’t mean all that much when the phenomenon under observation is as complex as human society.
It seems to me that the debate or controversy between “science” and “scientia” is a play of words, both referring to the same phenomena. It’s only the result of the creation of specialized departments in modern universities that has led to a limitation of the word “science” to the activities and results of some designated academic departments.
The words used by the Ancient Greeks and Romans, including “Wisdom” by the ancient Hebrews in their Old Testament, were closer to the original meanings of the ideas referring to human knowledge.
Scientia is the use of another word to refresh an idea of global “knowledge” that has been eroded and constrained to some artificial modern activities in the current meaning of the word “science”, exaggerating popular images of laboratories, white coats, etc…as opposed to another idea issued of academia “humanities”.
For Petrarch and his follower Italian “humanists” of the 14th and 15th centuries, “humanities” were not opposed to “science” as in the modern, artificial debate, but to “divinities”, studies of what pertains to God and religion.
Similarly the idea of “rationality” has been degraded and reduced to some vague mental manipulation that is not always clearly identified and understood, and often sounds like another appeal to a mysterious faculty of the human mind. “Reason” as such does not exist anywhere, and is a mythical concept that does not refer to any phenomenon. What is active and observable is “reasoning”, and that can be identified, labeled, characterized, and described. But unlike the Holy Spirit, it is not a magical tool that leads to absolutes, far from it. Unlike so many pretentious and misleading articles in HuffingtonPost
Whichever way we want to twist those words and debate them endlessly, we all have to go back to the “passions” mentioned by Descartes and Hume as the final irreducible elements of our biological/mental life. “Passions” is a far superior word to our modern “emotions”. Damasio himself often uses “feelings” more appropriately than “emotions”. But they all refer to similar facts based on irreducible instincts.
Why keeps sources of ideas anonymous? As if they emerged from the air we breathe rather than some definite human brains who try to disseminate them in the community using all modern systems of communication?
Why use this misleading abstract language:
“There is growing acceptance of the idea that our minds have two systems, a quick response system and a thoughtful response system, both necessary.”
Why not name Daniel Kahneman and refer to the diffusion of his ideas and the words that he himself employed, and even put in the title of his book?
“ we all have to go back to the “passions” mentioned by Descartes and Hume as the final irreducible elements of our biological/mental life. ”
You may do that but unregulated passions lead us to all that is bad about our human species.
Passions of course play a vital part in our mental lives, just as they do in the lives of my dogs.
But there is an important difference, our moral awareness has lifted us above the mentality of dog-eat-dog. Our moral awareness has slowly developed and transformed us until today we enjoy unprecedented rights, fairness and justice in life. That is because moral awareness regulates our passions and directs our rational thinking.
The sociologist, Christian Smith, has made the argument that we are fundamentally moral animals. He advances his thesis in the book, Moral, Believing Animals and concludes
““This book has advanced one approach to answering this question, arguing that the most adequate approach to theorizing human culture and social life must be a normative one that of humans as moral, believing, narrating animals and human social life as constituted by moral orders that define and direct social action. Human culture, I have suggested, is always moral order, and human cultures are everywhere moral orders. Human persons, I have claimed, are nearly inescapably moral agents, human actions necessarily morally constituted and propelled practices, and human institutions inevitably morally infused configurations of rules and resources.
Building on this model, in the foregoing pages I have suggested that one of the central and fundamental motivations for human action is to act out and sustain moral order, which constitutes, directs, and makes significant human life itself. This book has argued that human persons nearly universally live in social worlds that are thickly webbed with moral assumptions, beliefs, commitments, and obligations. The relational ties that hold human lives together, the conversations that occupy people’s mental lives, the routines and intentions that shape their actions, the institutions within which they live and work, the emotions they feel every day—I have suggested that all of these and more are drenched in, patterned by, glued together with moral premises, convictions, and obligations. There is thus nowhere a human can go to escape moral order, no way to be human except through moral order. And until we recognize this and build into our theories the recognition that to enact and sustain moral order is one of the central, fundamental motivations for human action, our understanding of human action and culture will be impoverished.”“
1) because these are comments and not an academic paper,
2) because stating the obvious becomes tedious and redundant,
3) because Google failed to provide a footnoting system(tsk, tsk),
4) because Kahneman is not the only source for these ideas,
5) because I simply couldn’t be bothered with the careful research required for a simple comment when in any case everyone knows what I am referring to,
6) because I’m not writing a term paper or for that matter, submitting an article for peer review,
7) because I didn’t anticipate an unnecessarily critical response,
8) because I never expected a comment to be held up to the standards of an academic paper.
Ye Gods, as Jerry Pournelle used to exclaim[there, you got your attribution].
Let’s deal with the substance and not the person.
Note that I did give attribution when referring to Christian Smith’s work, for the simple reason I did not expect him to be well known to readers of this forum.
“Similarly the idea of “rationality” has been degraded and reduced to some vague mental manipulation that is not always clearly identified and understood”
That is because it is not clearly identified and understood. We have first person descriptions of reasoning arrived at by introspection but we don’t have objective third person explanations of reasoning. We have scans, some measurements and that is it.
“and often sounds like another appeal to a mysterious faculty of the human mind.”
That is because it is mysterious. It happens, we can describe it through introspection but we have found no explanation to date. That sounds like a mystery to me.
It is a mystery because we have found no way to objectively examine another person’s thought processes. I cannot attach an instrument to your brain that will read out your thoughts.
David Chalmers famously articulated the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. He said in his conclusion to this paper – Consciousness and its Place in Nature:
“In any case, this gives us some perspective on the mind-body problem. It is often held that even though it is hard to see how materialism could be true, materialism must be true, since the alternatives are unacceptable. As I see it, there are at least three prima facie acceptable alternatives to materialism on the table, each of which is compatible with a broadly naturalistic (even if not materialistic) worldview, and none of which has fatal problems. So given the clear arguments against materialism, it seems to me that we should at least tentatively embrace the conclusion that one of these views is correct. Of course all of the views discussed in this paper need to be developed in much more detail, and examined in light of all relevant scientific and philosophical developments, in order to be comprehensively assessed. But as things stand, I think that we have good reason to suppose that consciousness has a fundamental place in nature.” (my emphasis)
Colin McGinn and Thomas Nagel have been called ‘New Mysterians‘ because of their belief that
“Although we might grasp the concept of consciousness, McGinn argues that we cannot understand its causal basis: neither direct examination of consciousness nor of the brain can identify the properties that cause or provide the mechanism for consciousness, or how “technicolour phenomenology [can] arise from soggy grey matter.” Thus, his answer to the hard problem of consciousness is that the answer is inaccessible to us.”
Other philosophers deny this but the debate has been impossible to resolve, hence the mystery.
Edward Feser, a very smart Catholic philosopher, has had an extended debate with Robert Oerter, a smart physicist, about the immateriality of thought. See this post and this post. The second post gives a nice summary of the argument for the immateriality of thought that so taxed Robert Oerter.
Given the many sides to the debate, the inability to resolve the debate and the serious arguments that Feser raises for the immateriality of thought we can safely conclude that the matter is still a mystery.
Consciousness and rational thought are(like Russia) a ‘riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma‘, to misquote Sir Winston Churchill. I would call it a mystery wrapped inside a brain inside a skull.
First, let me ‘second’ this great manifesto for 21st century public intellectualism, especially the three points below.
“2. We think intellectualism — in the broader sense of a publicly shared life of the mind — is crucial to the wellbeing of our society.
3) We acknowledge — as is clear from research in the cognitive sciences — that human beings navigate the world by deploying a complex mixture of reason and emotion, and that they often engage in rationalization more than rationality.
6) Scientia, understood as the broadest range of scientific and humanistic disciplines that positively contribute to human understanding, is an essential tool for pursuing that eudaimonic life and achieving that just society.”
Second, I would like to add one more dimension. In my view, there are three powers (faculties) in human nature, and they are the direct consequence of a neural-computer with capacity of the human brain.
One: rationale, with the input of empirical data, this neural-computer will transform them into concepts and connecting these concepts into logic. This process is innately built in this neural-computer. The lesson of the ‘critical Reasoning’ is, of course, a better and refined row data set. When a person gets bad data (such as a dogma), he will have the dogmatic rationale, but still a rationale. Fortunately, there is a judge (the Nature) who decides which rationale makes sense to Him.
Two: emotion, it arises from the reactions of the neural-computer when it faces the ‘social’ forces (being accepted or rejected). While rationale is ‘conception’ centered, the emotion is ‘self’ centered (does it good for me?) That is, the emotion is processed by the same neural-computer but with different boundary conditions (conceptions or self). Innately, emotion is more powerful than rationale while rationale can be trained to overrule the emotion.
Three: spiritual, it is now a bad word for atheists as it is badly polluted by many religions. While religions were the result of spiritual power, but this spiritual faculty has nothing to do with religions. With the two faculties (rationale and emotion) above, human can still not go to bed with all issues resolved. There are some questions which cannot be resolved in due time by rationale. There are some situations which cannot be settled by any means. At this juncture, human uses his spiritual faculty either to set the issue aside or to make up a story to satisfy himself. This is why so many nonsenses in the Christian Bible were worshipped by many. In the eyes of rationale, many of those nonsenses are not only wrong, but stupid. But, this spiritual power is much more powerful than the other two. The only way to rein in this spiritual power is by showing a good (true) story to replace those made-up stories.
Thus, I think that we must include this ‘spiritual’ dimension as a part of discussion in this 21st century public intellectualism. Yet, all these three faculties are parts of ‘intelligence”. Thus, a precise definition for intelligence might be helpful in our discussion. A webpage on intelligence (http://www.prebabel.info/aintel.htm ) might thus be useful.
You make some important points here, especially in #3. I am a determined atheist who’s always been bothered by fellow atheists’ attacks on the spiritual; equating it with superstition and nonsense (possibly on stilts). In my experiece it is an ineffable sense of empowerment resulting from a non-judgmental embrace of the context of my existence within the world. Sometimes I feel it as Neil deGrasse Tyson does when he describes science as his source of spirituality. Sometimes it is more a spontaneous reaction to beauty, often witnessed in nature. When it strikes in full, it provides a powerful sense of contentment and gladness to be alive. Gratitude to be granted the gift of consciousness, whatever the source.
“Sometimes I feel it as Neil deGrasse Tyson does when he describes science as his source of spirituality. Sometimes it is more a spontaneous reaction to beauty, often witnessed in nature.”
Thanks for your comment. Tyson has used the traditional definition for spiritual. In my definition, spiritual is one of the three faculties of human while it is much more powerful than the other two (rationale and emotion), and it can overrule both of them with the blink of one eye.
When one person made up a story (not true) and he knew that it is not true, he is telling a lie (by using his rationale faculty). When one person made up a story (obviously not true) but he proclaimed (deeply believed) that it is true, he has made up that story with his spiritual faculty.
Spiritual faculty is neither rational nor emotional. It has the power to settle all un-deal-able issues (all questions which are not reachable by reasons, and all situations which cannot be resolved with emotion) which human faces all the time. Of course, all religions are the result of this spiritual faculty. Yet, it is also the powerhouse of physics today. The SUSY believers will never give up their ‘spiritual tablet’ regardless of all the negative findings. For them, the last evidence can always be out of the reach by the human ability. Of course, any rational evidences are all nonsense for their spiritual faculty. Now, the multiverse is also setting up a spiritual temple of its own. If Tyson’s science is the product of reason, it can never be a source of any spirituality. The moment that one gets into a spiritual land, he must overrule all reasons and emotions.
“ I would argue that literature and the arts in general are very useful and indeed important in helping us understand the experience of being human.”
Massimo said in reply:
“At Scientia Salon we’ll limit ourselves to philosophy, logic, math and the sciences because those have historically comprised “scientia,” ”
The Manifesto said:
“6) Scientia, understood as the broadest range of scientific and humanistic disciplines that positively contribute to human understanding, is an essential tool for pursuing that eudaimonic life and achieving that just society.”
There seems to be a contradiction here or have I misunderstood what you mean by the term ‘broadest range… of humanistic disciplines that positively contribute to human understanding‘?
That seems to cast the net rather wider than your comment ‘…we’ll limit ourselves to philosophy, logic, math and the sciences‘. For example, history would seem to be a humanistic discipline that positively contributes to human undertanding.
Or do you mean rather more specifically things like the philosophy of aesthetics, philosophy of history, etc?
your comment about spirituality is interesting because it made me think more exactly about what we mean by ‘spirituality’. You approach it from the perspective of a ‘determined atheist’ while I approach it from the perspective of a devout Catholic, which made me wonder what commonality there is in our use of the term ‘spiritual’. Below is my analytical understanding of the matter, though some may claim that spirituality defies analysis.
In outline, spirituality is, as I understand it, our perception of a transcendent dimension that induces a deep experience that is transformative(a Catholic perspective expressed in neutral terms).
(1) perception: how and what we perceive,
(2) transcendent dimension: the hidden target of perception,
(3) deep experience: a powerful experience in the observer, induced by the perception,
(4) transformative: the result of the experience and perception, the changes that resulted in the observer.
From your perspective, that of a determined atheist(taken from your description above):
1) Perception: beauty, science, nature, existence, world, consciousness.
2) Transcendent dimension: ineffable, context of existence.
3) Experience: non-judgemental, embrace, spontaneous reaction.
4) Transformative: empowerment, contentment, gladness, gratitude.
What I have not said above is that we can only approach the transcendent dimension(as you said, ineffable), never directly apprehend it, because of its hidden nature. To approach it requires a willingness, an openness and the substitute of experience for observation. This of course, is anathema to the strictly reductionist materialist who will deny the existence of a transcendent dimension or that experience can play a useful role.
Where we can agree is that we follow a similar process that differs in its details. The major difference is in the nature of the transcendent dimension. I think we can both agree that the transformative power of spirituality is a good thing.
I’m not sure that the “transcendent dimension” is really different for those who experience it, but only in the way it is interpreted and described depending on the background context of the observers. A religious upbringing or cultural context may result in a sense of holiness to it, while someone largely separated from such a background might just get a sense of the cosmic or the fantastic from it without attributing anything godly to it. The emotional result does tend toward a greater sense of closeness and connection, even love, toward complete strangers and even across boundaries of different lifeforms. Losing the sense of separateness tends to free one from a needless burden and result in a newfound strength of “spirit”. The interesting thing to me is how unpredictable it tends to be.
Meditation is often frustrating because the transcendance doesn’t usually come on demand. I usually find a burst of it when least expecting it, when not intentionally pursuing it, but when I happen to find a natural groove; often hiking or doing some athletic pursuit in a friendly and inspiring environment. I find myself spontaneously appreciating the very fact of my existence. CS Lewis described it nicely as “surprised by joy.” Of course, he was very much approaching it from a religious context and tended to describe it in such terms.
“The emotional result does tend toward a greater sense of closeness and connection, even love, toward complete strangers and even across boundaries of different lifeforms.”
Yes, indeed. I have also found something else, a post meditative stage (5) where I am startled by new insights. It is as if the decoupling of the rational mind and then later re-engaging it, has freed my mind from past constraints, allowing my mind to re-assemble matters in new patterns and gain new insights. Perhaps this is what Buddhists mean by attaining ‘enlightenment’.
“Meditation is often frustrating because the transcendance doesn’t usually come on demand”
This is where I found the imagery, liturgy and rituals of the Church are helpful. They are designed to induce or support a meditative state. But I agree with you, it is a slippery concept that moves when you try to grasp it.
“when I happen to find a natural groove; often hiking or doing some athletic pursuit in a friendly and inspiring environment”
I find the same. Recent research supports this idea, see Aerobic Exercise Helps Boost Mindfulness.
I hope I may be permitted to join the discussion though I’m a lowly minimum wage security guard working at a private New England college. Too avoid any misunderstanding, I’m older than most of you (I suppose) and my health is rather poor, and most of my teeth are rotten. I work 5-7 days a week on campus with zero employment benefits. I’ve never miss a day of work and I’m never late. Nearly everybody, at least it would appear, is more educated than me and would express some form of (educated) enlightenment. Strange thing about all these (self professed learned and lettered) people is how little they care for anybody else–unless, of course– that that person can enable them to personally or professionally advance. I’m not talking about myself: I understand I’m a lowly security guard and unworthy of even the most elementary provisions to survive. Long story now shortened– on Monday, during a quite cold and windy day, an old man stood next to a car in distress just outside campus. Dozens, if not a hundred cars passed and none offered him help. I pulled over and helped this man, probably age 70ish, from Greece. Reason, logic, theory, polemics, am I missing anything? none of this supposed learning and enlightenment could provide an ounce of compassion. I guess the point I’m suggesting is that all this talk about and from “smart” and “reasoned” intellectuals paradoxically produces neither.
Next step: Humorous Web-comic generator app.
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